James McErlean, GM, Headspace for Work, Europe, discusses how public sector leaders can support productivity levels during the COVID-19 pandemic while being realistic and sensitive to any challenges employees might be experiencing
Across the public sector, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted people’s lives, transforming the way they work and creating unprecedented pressure. The response from the NHS and beyond has been heroic.
But with long hours and uncertainty creating greater stress and anxiety for many, there’s a risk of productivity levels dropping in some areas of the public sector, as professionals continue to adapt to the ongoing restrictions on their personal and working lives.
Leadership and productivity
When trust in leadership teams is low, it’s likely productivity will follow suit. With the coronavirus altering working conditions for many public sector professionals, the right style of management has never been so important.
Compassion is a crucial part of good leadership; recognising and understanding people’s health is critical to organisational health. Leaders should understand the challenges employees might be facing, which could include concerns about financial and job security, the impact on their work and basic connectivity with colleagues and managers.
With the lockdown still in place, public sector professionals might be worrying about personal matters – such as increased care responsibilities for children and pets or looking after relatives, which could be affecting their ability to concentrate. Understanding these concerns and being realistic about expectations as a leader is important to ensuring people feel supported and are able to carry out their jobs as best they can.
Public sector leaders should ensure, where possible, employees feel empowered to switch off for regular breaks and step away from their work and their computer at the end of the day. They should emphasise that they have the flexibility to adjust working times and expectations in line with new responsibilities, such as caring for loved ones.
With some public sector professionals working new and unusual hours from home, it’s essential that managers maintain good levels of communication, both formal and informal, to ensure that staff are coping and are able to focus.
Even when remote working is the norm, public sector leaders should be checking in with teams regularly, using video conferencing and relevant instant messaging tools where possible to maintain a sense of normality, and working to identify any unsaid signs of stress and anxiety. At Headspace, one of the ways we do this is through a combination of short stand-up sessions and “good morning” chats, allowing teams to feel informed and emotionally connected.
Public sector leaders should encourage employees to share how they’re feeling, whether they’re worried about the future, struggling with their workload or if they’re concerned about a family member and the current situation. Giving someone wholly undivided attention at the best of times can be difficult, but leaders should be patient and understanding. It’s important to make themselves aware of support tools available via HR teams, ready to point staff in the direction of techniques proven to help in managing any negative feelings staff might be experiencing.
Meditation and mindfulness might seem like a strange tool to turn to when thinking about productivity, but in training the mind to be kinder, more patient and more understanding, there is a positive effect on working relationships and overall output. Now more than ever, leaders should treat working and personal relationships with kindness and compassion, looking after employees and encouraging public sector professionals to take care of their minds and avoid burnout.
A mindful solution
Evidence shows mindfulness and meditation are indispensable tools for managing stress levels and anxiety and preventing serious productivity issues from developing. In the current climate, it’s particularly important for those who might be struggling to adapt to new working environments and who are less adaptive to change.
Research has shown that meditation can help people focus, switch between tasks less frequently and enjoy their work more. A scientific study has found that using mindfulness for 30 days reduced stress by a third (32%), while improving focus by 14% (1) (2). It’s a vital tool in assisting public sector professionals who might be finding the current situation difficult and who are struggling to concentrate on the task at hand.
The good news is meditation doesn’t have to involve much employee time and is easy to do from anywhere. It can be as simple as taking a couple of minutes to breathe, reset and regain perspective. With so much worry on people’s minds, taking a short amount of time to practise self-care is vital in managing negative feelings and ensuring that public sector workers are as productive as they can be in these difficult conditions.
Beyond the crisis
This isn’t something that public sector organisations should look to as a “quick fix” for productivity concerns in the current climate. The mind is complicated and experts are noting that experiences today (3) will stay with us past the end of lockdown – demonstrating there’s potential for a long-term impact on employee morale and productivity levels, as well as health.
Mindfulness should form part of long-term initiatives to improve employee mental health in the workplace and beyond. By practising mindfulness and meditation, public sector professionals can become more aware of their stress levels, without being overwhelmed by them.
They will also learn to identify stress triggers and approach these situations more mindfully, leading ultimately to a healthier, happier and more productive workforce.
Headspace has provided all NHS workers with free subscriptions to help them during this unprecedented global health crisis. Head here to find out more.
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